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October 17, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Five Preview: Red Sox at Tigers

by Paul Sporer

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The Red Sox are two very key hits from being at home for the season. That isn’t framed that way to take away from them being tied 2-2, but rather it is meant to point out just how lean the margin is in the playoffs. They are hitting .186 with 53 strikeouts and the only two starting pitchers to get wrecked have been Red Sox and yet the series now comes down to a three-game set during which they will have home-field advantage.

Red Sox (Jon Lester) at Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) 8:07 p.m. ET
PECOTA odds of winning: Tigers 51.8%, Red Sox 48.2%

Projected Starting Lineups:

Red Sox vs. Sanchez (R)

Tigers vs. Lester (L)

Jacoby Ellsbury (L) CF

Torii Hunter (R) RF

Shane Victorino (S) RF

Miguel Cabrera (R) 3B

Dustin Pedroia (R) 2B

Prince Fielder (L) 1B

David Ortiz (L) DH

Victor Martinez (S) DH

Mike Napoli (R) 1B

Jhonny Peralta (R) LF

Daniel Nava (L) LF

Alex Avila (L) C

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) C

Omar Infante (R) 2B

Stephen Drew (L) SS

Austin Jackson (R) CF

Will Middlebrooks (R) 3B

Jose Iglesias (R) SS

The Set-Up

The Game One rematch brings Anibal Sanchez, the AL’s ERA leader, back to the forefront. He threw six no-hit innings in the 1-0 win, but he wasn’t as sharp as that description might have you imagine. He had some wicked good stuff that netted 12 strikeouts, but he was often as clueless about where it was going as the Red Sox hitters were, as evidenced by his six walks. Jon Lester was a bit overlooked because of the eight-inning no-hit bid by the Tigers, but he was sharp against the league’s second-best offense versus lefties.

The revamped Tigers lineup is the big story from Game Four, but without a Dustin Pedroia bobble they don’t explode for a five-run second inning that propelled them. They might have still won 4-3, but the seven runs are being attributed to the changes by some. The moves were wise and necessary, but it is still a one-game sample that can’t be used to draw sweeping conclusions. Whether it was the lowered pressure of hitting eighth or simply better at-bats that would’ve occurred anywhere, Austin Jackson broke out with a big night. Staying hot could prove problematic given his meager .681 season OPS against southpaws, though.

Focusing In
The 38 percent strikeout rate by the Red Sox so far has kept the Tigers’ biggest deficiency at bay, as their team defense hasn’t been tasked with turning a rash of batted balls into outs. Their biggest deficiency from a quality-to-importance standpoint appears to be getting healthier, though. Prince Fielder is far and away their worst defender, but Miguel Cabrera isn’t much better and plays a far more important position and as Sam Miller discussed in his recap of Game Four—he made a big play and didn’t appear to exacerbate his ailments by doing so.

With Sanchez and his 1.4 GB:FB ratio on the mound, manager Jim Leyland should stick with Wednesday’s configuration which keeps Jose Iglesias at shortstop and Jhonny Peralta in leftfield. Leyland seems to be aware of these numbers as he has only put Peralta at short with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander on the moun— the only two sub-40 percent ground-ball rates in the Detroit rotation.

The Red Sox actually out-hit the Tigers 12 to nine on Wednesday including a four-hit effort from Jacoby Ellsbury. While a repeat effort will almost certainly yield more than three runs, the problem is following Ellsbury as Shane Victorino (.125), Dustin Pedroia (.214), and David Ortiz (.067) have all struggled to cash him in. Pedroia is getting on base as well with a .353 OBP which paired with Ellsbury’s .412 OBP shines even a brighter light on Ortiz’s struggles. The grand slam keeps the heat off, but only for so long.

Matchups to Watch
Sanchez got 20 swings-and-misses in Game One, including eight on his slider—a pitch the Sox were successful against during the regular season. Six of those resulted in a strikeout. Additionally, the patient approach of the Sox allowed Sanchez to climb back into counts. He only threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 25 batters he faced, but got back to a 1-1 count in 11 of the 14 appearances that he started off 1-0. Five of the 11 times he went to 2-1, he battled back for a strikeout.

The approach that led to the fourth-best walk rate also pushed them to the ninth-highest strikeout rate and they are facing the one staff that can turn that strength into a weakness. There were only 12 starters with at least 200 strikeouts this year and the Sox face three of them to close out this series.

My Prediction
The Tigers take a 3-2 lead back to Boston with a 5-4 win on Thursday evening. Facing a lefty with the AL’s ERA leader on the hill for them is about as good of a setup as the Tigers could’ve asked for in their final home game of the series.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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